FALUN GONG . Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a Chinese spiritual movement founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi (1951–). Although most Western scholars would classify it as a "new religious movement," Li and his followers understand Falun Gong not as a religion but as a "cultivation system," based on principles of qigong that are widely accepted in China. Falun Gong rapidly became very popular in China, attracting millions of followers in the years immediately after its founding. For complex reasons, Falun Gong soon ran afoul of the Chinese state, and a massive protest in Beijing by Falun Gong practitioners against media censure at the end of April 1999 led to a harsh crackdown by the Chinese government on the grounds that Falun Gong was a dangerous "heterodox sect."
Qigong and the Qigong Boom
To understand the rise and popularity of Falun Gong, it is essential to understand the rise and popularity of qigong. In Chinese, qi means "vital breath" or "energy" and refers to a force existing in nature that can be harnessed for a variety of purposes. Gong means "skill" or "technique," and the two characters together mean "the cultivation of qi energy." Qigong practice includes a variety of techniques, some stressing physical movement, some stressing meditation or visualization. The goal of practice is self-healing, stress reduction, and the cultivation of supernormal powers.
The practices and principles of qigong are drawn from traditional Chinese medicine, folk healing, martial arts, and popular religion, many varieties of which have claimed magical healing powers. These practices did not, however, exist as a coherent whole prior to the Communist revolution of 1949, nor did the notion of qigong exist as such. Ironically, given the state's later opposition, qigong was created and nurtured by the Chinese government in the 1950s as part of an effort to preserve traditional Chinese medical practices in the face of a massive importation of Western medicine. The goal of those who "invented" qigong in the 1950s was to separate pure qigong technique from its traditional spiritual underpinnings so as to preserve the scientific benefits of qigong while discarding its dangerous and "superstitious" wrappings. The first "consumers" of qigong were high-level cadres of the Chinese government, who practiced qigong in sanatoria run by the Chinese traditional medical establishment.
After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, qigong became a mass phenomenon in the freer, less politically charged atmosphere of post-Mao China. One important element of this transformation was the emergence of charismatic qigong masters who in the late 1970s and early 1980s took qigong out of the sanatoria and into the public parks of urban China, where qigong was taught to any and all who were interested. As the popularity of qigong grew, masters sought larger venues, even renting sports stadiums at the height of the boom and selling tickets to eager followers. The credibility of qigong was enhanced by the "discovery" by well-known Chinese scientists that qi was a material substance and that the development of supernormal powers based on the mastery of qi had a scientific foundation.
Encouraged by the scientific endorsement of the reality of qi and qigong, the Chinese government lent its support to the qigong movement. From a practical point of view, mass practice of qigong promised to improve the health of the Chinese people and reduce demands on the health care system at a time when the leadership hoped to economize by shrinking its investment in public health. In addition, after the failure of Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the post-Mao Chinese leadership sought legitimacy as much in Chinese nationalism as in Marxism-Leninism, and the government was pleased that many Chinese people were becoming reacquainted with China's traditional culture through their practice of qigong, which qigong masters linked to China's rich cultural heritage. China's leaders were equally proud to tout qigong to the world as China's contribution to modern science—yet another manifestation of post-Mao Chinese nationalism. At the same time, China's leaders sought to regulate qigong, and to this end set up the Chinese Qigong Scientific Research Association in April 1986.
Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, China went wild for qigong in what was known as the "qigong boom." Hundreds of millions of people participated, and thousands of articles on qigong appeared in official media, as well as in newly created journals and newspapers wholly devoted to qigong. Hundreds of qigong masters competed for public attention. The most visible symbol of the qigong boom was the appearance of nationwide networks of qigong practitioners, all of whom were organized around charismatic qigong masters, who gave lecture tours, appeared on television, and published and sold books and cassettes. Chinese interest in qigong had become a mass movement, which began to take on the character of a new religious movement. Masters, in their explanations of the workings of qigong, began to elaborate theories that went beyond the technical aspects of qigong practice and the achievement of physical well-being; they linked qigong to morality, spirituality, the meaning of life, and the meaning of the universe. In addition, qigong practitioners began to fall into trances, experience visions, and suffer "possession," and a widespread enthusiasm for the pursuit of supernormal powers through qigong practice signaled the embrace of qigong as a force capable of altering ordinary reality.
Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong
Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong emerged as part of the qigong boom. Both were initially embraced as part of the movement, and Falun Gong was welcomed into the Qigong Scientific Research Association, which sponsored and helped to organize many of Li's activities between 1992 and 1994. Notable among those activities were fifty-four major lectures given throughout China to a total audience of some twenty thousand. Like other masters, Li published books of his teachings, which achieved such success that he was soon able to offer his lectures free of charge.
Still, if Li Hongzhi and Falun Gong owed their initial success to their kinship with other qigong masters and schools, there was something different about Li Hongzhi. Li condemned other qigong schools for their crass materialism, in effect accusing them of fraud. More fundamentally, he reproached the entire qigong establishment for an unhealthy obsession with healing and supernormal powers, which came, in his view, at the expense of a deeper spiritual orientation. To Li, Falun Gong was qigong taken to a higher plane. Falun Gong, he claimed, could heal illnesses and confer supernormal powers, but the more important objective was to arrive at a physical transformation of the body and a fundamental transformation of one's understanding of the composition of the universe and one's role therein. These transformations were to be effected through Falun Gong practice, which, like other styles of qigong, included physical movements, but which also accorded an importance to scripture (i.e., Li Hongzhi's writings). This emphasis on the master's writings was unusual in the context of the qigong movement. Unlike other qigong schools, Falun Gong also stressed the miraculous, godlike powers of Li Hongzhi (i.e., the ability to assure the health and welfare of all of his followers at all times) in a way that differed from other qigong schools.
Li's teachings are an eclectic mixture of Buddhism, Daoism, popular religion, and "scientism." His theology draws largely on Buddhism, and he calls on followers to sever all "attachments," be they to meat, alcohol, medicines, material possessions, or other human beings. Practitioners are to be compassionate to all, but such compassion should not engender attachments that detract from salvation. Li frequently evokes the traditional Buddhist concept of karma—the notion, linked to reincarnation, that the merits and demerits of one's present life will be reflected in one's status at the moment of rebirth in a future life. The "scientistic" cast of Li Hongzhi's message is reflected in its conception of karma, which in Falun Gong literature has a material basis: karma is a black substance present in the body, which can be transformed by suffering and virtuous practice into a white substance. The transformation, according to Li, occurs at the molecular level and accounts scientifically for the improved health of Falun Gong practitioners. Indeed, the promise of improved health has been the primary attraction of Falun Gong for many practitioners, who consider disease a form of karma to be eliminated through suffering and cultivation. Most Falun Gong practitioners avoid doctors, hospitals, and medication.
Another aspect of Li's teachings concerns world destruction and renewal. He argues that the world has been destroyed and re-created eighty-one times, and that signs indicate that another cycle of world destruction and renewal is imminent. Li drew these ideas from traditional strains of Chinese apocalyptic thinking, found especially in popularized versions of Daoism and Buddhism. Interestingly, Li did not stress this teaching prior to the Chinese government's suppression of Falun Gong.
Li argues furthermore that truth (zhen), benevolence (shan), and forbearance (ren), the three cardinal principles of Falun Gong practice, are in fact the forces that make up the physical universe. Falun Gong practitioners achieve oneness with cosmic reality in cultivating truth, benevolence, and forbearance in their personal lives. Rather than present scientific arguments to illustrate his contentions, Li claims to have transcended science and thus to understand all of reality from another, higher level. His writings are full of scientific (or parascientific) references (his reflections on the proper understanding of gravity, for example), which his followers take as seriously as the rest of his writings.
Falun Gong practice is simple, albeit time-consuming. The exercises, described in the book China Falun Gong (1993), are to be performed on a daily basis if possible, alone or with other practitioners. The more important aspect of Falun Gong practice is the reading and rereading of Li Hongzhi's most important work, Zhuan Falun (The revolving wheel of the Buddhist law), first published in Chinese in 1995. This work is held to be the source of all truth; many practitioners report having read it in a single sitting and having experienced an immediate revelation. In China prior to the suppression of Falun Gong, a nationwide network of practice centers brought practitioners together on a regular basis, which allowed for the rapid diffusion of the Falun Gong message to interested parties. The centers offered no worship services, however, and Li Hongzhi forbids anyone to speak in his place; all "teaching" is thus carried out via books or video and audio recordings, or via other materials made available on the Falun Gong websites.
This same basic structure has been copied on a smaller scale outside of China. Many followers exercise daily and meet weekly with other practitioners to read Li Hongzhi's works and to exchange experiences. Large "experience-sharing conferences" are an important part of the North American Falun Gong experience. These are regional events, held on a rotating basis in cities where there are significant numbers of Falun Gong practitioners. Such events add witness statements to the Falun Gong repertoire of exercises and reading of scripture; practitioners deliver prepared statements of their experience before and after coming to know Falun Gong. Li Hongzhi frequently appears at such events, the only occasions at which ordinary members can see the master.
Chinese practitioners in North America are in general highly educated and reasonably wealthy, in part because American and Canadian immigration procedures attempt to filter out the poorly educated and those who are likely to become wards of the state. In China, Falun Gong, like qigong, appealed to a broad range of the population—rich and poor, educated and uneducated, powerful and powerless, urban and rural, women and men, as well as members of the Communist Party.
Falun Gong's Conflict with the Chinese Government
In his pre-1999 writings, Li Hongzhi appears to be nationalistic and patriotic, but largely apolitical. Nevertheless, while other qigong leaders took care to cast their message in such a way as to avoid conflict with the authorities, Li seems to have worried little about the response his writings might evoke. Zhuan Falun, for example, teems with references to spirit possession, the destruction and re-creation of the word, extraterrestrial interference in the affairs of humankind—in short, a host of references unlikely to please Communist authorities.
As a nationwide mass movement organized around a charismatic leader who largely ignored the Chinese Communist Party, Falun Gong represented a potential threat, but as such it was not much different from other qigong schools. What distinguished Falun Gong as an organization was its propensity to react quickly and vigorously to perceived slights from the media, a practice that rapidly became "political," since most media outlets in China are little more than mouthpieces for the government. Sources hostile to Falun Gong report more than three hundred such instances, beginning in the summer of 1996, none of which were violent and all of which essentially demanded that "erroneous" information about Falun Gong be corrected. Falun Gong practitioners later likened their protests to those of Mahatma Gandhi in India or Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. But China has little tradition of civil rights demonstrations, and actions such as surrounding the state-owned and state-run Beijing television station, which Falun Gong practitioners did in May 1998, were perceived as audacious, if not seditious, in the Chinese setting.
Criticism of Falun Gong in the official media suggested that the movement had detractors in high places. Indeed, official opinion about Falun Gong, and about the qigong movement in general, was divided. At various points during the qigong boom, some critics expressed concern that qigong and Falun Gong were little more than a return to "feudal superstition" and that organizations built on such foundations were not to be trusted. It was probably due to such criticisms that Li Hongzhi decided to leave China for the United States in 1996, roughly the same time that Falun Gong "protests" began in China. Subsequently, problems over Falun Gong's continued recognition as an "official" qigong organization signaled that the Chinese government was particularly worried about Falun Gong.
The Falun Gong encirclement of Communist Party headquarters in Beijing in 1999 was sparked by a media affair in the neighboring city of Tianjin, and should thus be understood as a continuation of previous protests. The huge demonstration on April 29, 1999, when some ten thousand practitioners surrounded party headquarters at Zhongnanhai, was surely designed to draw the attention of the authorities to the ongoing criticism of Falun Gong in the media. The demonstration may even have been intended to suggest the power of Falun Gong (it was the largest protest China had experienced since the student democracy movement of 1989), and it apparently came as a complete surprise to China's leadership.
If Li Hongzhi expected the Chinese authorities to back down, he must have been sorely disappointed, for the state responded to the demonstration with a fierce campaign against Falun Gong. Laws passed during the summer and fall of 1999 defined Falun Gong as a "heterodox sect" and authorized confiscation of Falun Gong books, recordings, and other paraphernalia. Consistent with their tradition of protest, Falun Gong practitioners—encouraged, one assumes, by the Falun Gong leadership—sought out Chinese authorities at all levels, insisting that Falun Gong was benevolent. The most visible of these Falun Gong protesters were the practitioners who demonstrated in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, in essence demanding a confrontation with the authorities in China's central political space. Confrontation ensued, as the state arrested, imprisoned, and tortured tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners beginning in the fall of 1999.
After the campaign against Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi's message began to change. Li largely disappeared from circulation between the spring of 1999 and the fall of 2000. When he reemerged, delivering impromptu addresses at experience-sharing conferences in North America and Europe, he emphasized the apocalyptic aspects of his discourse in ways he had not done prior to April 1999. He began, for example, to depict the suppression of the Falun Gong movement in China as a part of a "final trial," and he seemed to promise that those who martyred themselves to the cause would receive instant "consummation" or enlightenment, the final completion of their cultivation efforts.
Falun Gong practitioners outside of China began to organize during this period, both to ensure that the truth about Falun Gong and about the suppression reach China, and to bring pressure on Western governments to condemn the actions of the Chinese state. These efforts, particularly those addressed to Western governments, achieved considerable success. However, an important moment in this conflict was the alleged self-immolation of a number of Falun Gong practitioners in Tiananmen Square in late January 2001. Although doubts persist as to the identity of those who set themselves on fire (Falun Gong practitioners insist that the event was staged by Chinese authorities), the incident marked an important public relations victory for the Chinese government within China. Many Chinese who had remained neutral to that point came to share the authorities' view that Falun Gong was indeed a dangerous heterodox sect. The Chinese authorities succeeded in suppressing Falun Gong, as well as other qigong schools, within China, but at great cost in terms of the regime's international prestige and the loss of money and energy that could have been more usefully invested elsewhere.
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David Ownby (2005)
Falun Gong is one of several groups based in China whose belief and practice is centered upon the practice of qigong, an exercise process not unlike yoga, believed to stimulate the flow of qi, or life energy, through the body. It was founded by Master Li Hongzi (1951-) in 1992, but had emerged as part of the support that the Chinese government had given to research on, and the practice of, qigong in the 1980s. Qigong practice has been perpetuated in China, with government approbation, through the National Qigong Federation. In 1992, Li Hongzi withdrew from the federation and through Falun Gong has spread his own peculiar teachings based upon the traditional practice.
Above and beyond the simple practice of the exercises, Master Li has emphasized the "cultivation of the XinXing," a path of life emphasizing the key virtues of truthfulness, benevolence, and forbearance. Practicing cultivation leads to enlightenment, a concept tied to the teachings of the Buddha. Followers believe strongly in reincarnation and karma, and Master Li teaches that passing through tribulations are a necessary part of relieving oneself of past karmic debts. He also teaches the existence of a pantheon of deities and spirit entities (including demonic ones) that interfere with life and history on Earth. Possibly most offensive to other qigong practitioners and the Chinese government, Master Li suggested that he was the only person who could lay out the exact course for the practice of the exercises and demanded that all of the secrets of the tradition be made available to the public. The basic concepts are laid out in a book, China Falun Gong, authored by Li.
Falun Gong also emphasizes the concept of the Falun, part of the invisible human anatomy assumed to exist in traditional Chinese teachings. The Falun is a center of energy located in the region of the lower abdomen. It is believed to be a microcosm of the universe and contain all of its secrets. The practice of qigong awakens the qi energy to flow more freely through the body, bringing good health and well-being.
Falun Gong spread quickly through China and Hong Kong, and then through the Chinese communities in diaspora worldwide. With almost no attention from the press, strong centers developed in Singapore, Taiwan, and throughout southeast Asia. Practitioners soon created centers across North America and Europe. In 1998 Master Li moved to New York City.
In 1999, China began a new campaign against unofficial religious movements that included Falun Gong prominently among its targets. The movement has millions of followers in China, though in spite of the spiritual aspect to the teachings concerning "cultivation" and the recognition of supernatural entities, the Falun Gong membership insists that it is not a religion. Nevertheless, the Chinese government has moved against it, arresting several hundred of its leaders, at least four of whom have died while in custody. The government has also insisted on the extradition of Li back to China to stand trial, but the United States government has responded by condemning the persecution of the group. In the meantime, Chinese government officials have enlisted the aid of Western anticultists, including the magician James Randi, known for his hostility to occult and minority religious practices, to assist them in developing a publicity campaign to justify their actions to Western nations.
In facing the authority of the Chinese government, Falun Gong leaders have shown remarkable commitment to their movement and insisted that it is not a challenge to the reigning authority. Outside of China, the massive coverage of the movement has led to its further growth, including the attraction of many non-Chinese. The Chinese government and the movement have also waged a war of words on the Internet. The primary Falun Gong sites are at http://www.falundafa.org and at http://minghui.ca/. The ongoing controversy is being monitored by several researchers, including Massimo Introviugne of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, Italy, whose webpage on Falun Gong may be found at http://www.cesnur.org/. Falun Gong has no official headquarters in the United States. It operates through a set of volunteer contacts whose names and phone numbers are posted on the Inter-net sites.
Falun Gong: The Real Story. Pamphlet informally published by American Falun Gong practitioners, 1999.
Li Hongzi. China Falun Gong. Hong Kong: Falun Fo Fa Publishing, 1992, 1998.